Californians Need Safe Drinking Water Now

Senator Andy Vidak
California State Senate, 14th District -- representing Fresno, Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties

It is not often that Republicans and Democrats come together and agree on a solution to a pressing challenge facing our state. It is even rarer when industries whose perspectives are usually on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum – like agricultural and environmental justice organizations – are on the same page.

But these strange bedfellows have come together to put an end to the polluted water consumed by nearly one million Californians – including tens of thousands in the Central Valley.

Since I was elected in 2013, I have worked to help my Central Valley constituents obtain safe and clean drinking water. Nearly a third of the communities identified in the 15 counties with the greatest number of water systems that lack access to a clean groundwater drinking source are in my Senate district.

But the Central Valley is not alone. California’s statewide drinking water crisis is a serious public health emergency. Drinking water contaminants are dangerous and can cause a variety of both short-term and long-term health effects, with children and the elderly typically at the greatest risk. Common contaminants include arsenic, nitrates, and uranium. Low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by unsafe drinking water.

There is a solution. I am the proud co-author of bi-partisan legislation – along with Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel), that finally provides a reliable funding source to ensure children and families across the state have access to safe and clean water from their faucets. It will support critical functions like ongoing operations and maintenance costs for drinking water treatment that poor communities cannot afford on their own.

Known as the “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund”, now included in Senate Bills 844 and 845, this idea has been debated for nearly two years in the Capitol. The legislation has been vetted through nearly two years of policy and budgetary hearings. And it is built upon more than a decade of intense community activism, stakeholder negotiations, and numerous academic and government studies.

During the past few weeks, several changes to the bills were made to make it more acceptable to some of the folks that opposed it. The proposal now provides greater economic security to agricultural and rural regions like ours while addressing nitrate impacts in drinking water. In exchange for regulatory relief regarding nitrate contamination, the agricultural industry has agreed to very modest funding increases assessed on fertilizer and livestock.

The proposal also addresses drinking water contamination through a voluntary, opt-out program that allows water users to help defray the costs of paying for the ongoing operations and maintenance of treatment systems (similar to other state charges for energy and telecommunications).

Between the revenues generated from this voluntary program and the increased agricultural fee, the state expects to generate sufficient revenue to ensure that every drinking water system in California is able to provide its customers with safe and clean drinking water.

This issue is near and dear to me. In Sacramento, I represent one of the poorest Senate districts in the state, which includes thousands of constituents who lack access to safe and clean drinking water. As a farmer, I understand how burdensome regulation and job-killing policies are increasing the cost of doing business in California. This counter-productive approach makes agriculture – already one of the riskiest industries – even more difficult in which to succeed.

However, SB 844 allows California farmers and farmworkers to plan for costs that help make sure all Californians have safe and clean drinking water. Furthermore, it protects our farming community from costly enforcement actions by the State Water Resources Control Board, or worse, costly litigation that may force small farms out of business.

As the Legislature meets for the final days of its two-year session, I am hopeful that the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund–SB 844 and SB 845–will win passage and head to the Governor’s desk.

All too often, we see poorly vetted policy rushed through the Legislature at the eleventh hour. However, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund has been thoroughly reviewed by all stakeholders. Now is the time to act. We cannot let years of bipartisan compromise and consensus-building go to waste.

Our communities, our farmers, and our farmworkers cannot afford another year of inaction.

Senator Vidak proudly serves the people of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.

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